Creating a barter/donation culture on a hyperlocal community site

A useful feature I rolled out on the online community site formerly known as MyTopiaCafe.com was called “Helping Hands.” The function was a kind of classified mechanism targeted to the circulation of free stuff to local nonprofits. I’ve been wondering how to adapt such a function to generate revenue for a hyperlocal site.

The idea for “Helping Hands” was to help the nonprofits that were helping our community. Nonprofit organizations could register their “wish lists” of items or volunteers they needed on the site along with an “organization profile,” getting visibility in our online community. Individuals could post their own lists of things they had to donate, along with pictures and a description. Registered nonprofits could see contact information for those donating items and contact them to make the exchange.

In the early days of the World Wide Web, some newspapers used their online space to provide web site development and hosting solutions for nonprofit organizations. In “Digitizing the News,” Pablo Boczkowski provides case studies of these experiments like the New Jersey Online Community Connection. The New Jersey experiment recognized the value of the nonprofit community as an eager and powerful audience for any online community endeavor.

Helping Hands was kind of like a targeted Craigslist or reminiscent of the Freecycle networks found in many communities, with the beneficiaries restricted to nonprofit organizations. Other media organizations had not adopted the donation module on the content management system I used because they couldn’t find ways to monetize the free exchange. So I became the beta tester. But my philosophy on MyTopiaCafe.com was to add functionality and services that helped to sustain conversations in the community — and build relationships.

So “Helping Hands” was born with that “each one, reach one” mentality. But its value extended beyond the goodwill created by the service. Nonprofit organizations were doing great work and sometimes needed the help of the media to showcase their value. Helping Hands gave me a tangible gift I could bring to those nonprofits that encouraged them to post their wish list, but also post photos, stories, events and other items on the site. They became my “power users” as they had often been frustrated by the lack of coverage in the local newspaper.

I ran into an unexpected roadblock in the implementation. Some people who had seen the print ads for the service in the newspaper assumed that Helping Hands was a physical place where they could donate items. Over time, I developed a list of “partner organizations” like Goodwill, homeless shelters and other sites that took donations or would even pick up from locations. I would provide this list to callers asking for addresses.

But had I been innovative and enterprising, I may have been able to create partnerships with local consignment shops, getting revenue from the donated items to add to the bottom line. For a large newspaper, this idea would probably be more time consuming than it’s worth. But for a hyperlocal community site, negotiating drop off sites and relationships with sellers could meet some operating expenses, with a percentage of profits being donated to some local organization. Sounds like a win-win-win to me.

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Creating a barter/donation culture on a hyperlocal community site

The Wonderful CMS of Oz…Off to find some wizards

CharlotteAnne of NowCastSA of San Antonio posted a great piece on what she’s looking for in an online community content management system on “Choosing the digital printing press.” CharlotteAnne says:

So instead of starting by looking at the “stuff” that’s going into the box, we get to think first about people and community and function. We can choose a CMS by how well it can help users, consumers and content creators build our online community.”

Not that either of us has found one yet that suits our needs, but she dreams big about what she’s looking for in discreet, manageable chunks for those developer friends among us. Her list, bulleted (see her post for the details):

  • Flexibility
  • Friendly
  • Social
  • Comments=Co-Authors
  • Wikis
  • Email/RSS/SMS
  • Blogs
  • Widget Embeds
  • Taxonomy
  • Who/What/When Calendar
  • Touchy Feely
  • Bilingual

Do we still have any developer friends after this list? Then take a look at CharlotteAnne’s post cause we’re headed to Emerald City. And there are enough of us out here traveling this yellow brick road to make building such a robust CMS thing realistic…and yes, profitable. Any takers?

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The Wonderful CMS of Oz…Off to find some wizards

What you “do” comes before what you call it

One of the first things someone asked me when they found out I’d gotten the New Media Women Entrepreneur grant was what I was going to call it. “Do you have a URL yet?” she asked.

I remain evasive on that question, because I know the trap that I can fall into searching for a domain name first, compromising based on what is available, THEN trying to fit the business model to what the name may suggest. Sounds backward, but oftentimes searching for a domain name is the first activity because it looks like a legitimate business activity.

But what are you branding? Words have meaning and domain names have meanings (or not, if the word is a neologism) associated with them. Is the name representative of what you are delivering?

And so I’ve pushed back, focusing my energies on finding a platform/technologies that will nurture the types of online connections and conversations that I’d like to see in my model…and letting the name evolve from that.

I’ve been asking myself:

  • What do you want people to be able to do?
  • What are the uses you expect people to have of the technology? How is it better/different than what is currently in use?
  • How will I know when I am successful? What activity demonstrates that the technology is working?

I know these don’t sound like questions of a journalist trying to reinvent the business. They’re not. They are questions designed to focus my attention on the larger purposes of the journalistic/community building enterprise…beyond delivering data and information to building the knowledge and capacity for action of the community.

And a choice of a platform affects the larger architecture of the franchise model. Do I use a blog-type software that perhaps embodies ease of use for the franchisees but feels like a push model (traditional content delivery model) to my community? Is the software representative of the collaborative writing space that I’m hoping to model in the community’s actions? Does an open-source solution philosophically match the contributory nature of the environment I want to simulate? Or would a proprietary solution help ensure that there’s motivation by *someone* to continue to build out the software? Each of these questions has consequences and compromises as to whom the tool best serves.

So I’m a philosophy in search of a platform. I’m looking for an architecture like the franchise model that embodies independence, yet collaboration, collective development, yet independent practice. The ultimate solution lies in the in between, the spaces between the either/or models I’ve seen to date.

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What you “do” comes before what you call it